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February 27th, 2014:

BGT fires back

Good for them.

Allegations that Battleground Texas broke the law during its voter registration activities are “entirely without foundation,” the Democratic group wrote in a letter to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst on Tuesday.

Dewhurst, citing a secretly recorded video of Battleground volunteers in Bexar County, had earlier called for a criminal investigation because of allegations that privacy laws had been broken.

But Graham Wilson, an attorney for the group, told Dewhurst in the letter that his call for a probe “reflects no familiarity with either the law” or rules promulgated by the office of the secretary of state, which handles voter registration regulations at the state level.

He said opinions from Attorney General Greg Abbott demonstrate that phone numbers gathered during the voter registration process were considered public information. Phone numbers allegedly copied down by Battleground volunteers sparked the accusations in the first place.

“In short, Battleground Texas is operating in full compliance with the law as set forth in the Attorney General’s legal opinions, and with attention paid as appropriate to the Secretary of State’s official guidance in this area,” Wilson wrote.


As for the phone numbers, Wilson cited three opinions from the office of the attorney general, including one from 2010 stemming from a case in Dallas County. In that opinion, Abbott’s office concluded that “the county may not withhold the telephone numbers” from a requestor who had asked for the information.

Battleground also cited a pamphlet from the office of the secretary of state that says in part that a volunteer deputy registrar “may also copy the relevant information from the application in writing just as you would be able to do if you went to the registrar’s office and pulled a copy of the original application.”

Wilson said the group does not photocopy voter registration applications and “has not used and is not retaining phone numbers taken off voter registration forms by volunteers.”

See here for the background. I’ve got a copy of the AG opinion here and the letter to Dewhurst, which shows him the level of respect he deserves, here. Not really a whole lot to add at this point – either a DA files a charge or convenes a grand jury (Abbott handed off to Bexar County DA Susan Reed, who last I checked was seeking a pinch hitter) or they don’t. Any lawyers want to take a crack at evaluating this one? BOR has more.

Cab companies push back on Uber/Lyft

The first Council action on updating the taxi and limo codes to accommodate Uber and Lyft went about as you’d expect.

Houston City Council members struggled Tuesday to strike a balance between ensuring paid rides in Houston are available to everyone and encouraging competition from new firms that say they can provide faster service.

Speakers at a joint meeting of two council committees considering changes in taxi regulations said the business models of the new companies, Uber and Lyft, could complicate a system important not just to established businesses, but to city residents dependent on cabs.

“This needs to be broader than who makes a dollar off of it,” said Tomaro Bell, president of the Super Neighborhood Alliance.

Lyft and Uber use non-professional drivers behind the wheels of their personal vehicles. Taxi industry leaders complained that the new companies would not face the same requirements as established ones, such as serving disabled passengers and providing service all over Houston.

“They don’t want the difficult part. They want the easy part,” said George Tompkins, who owns a company with five taxi medallions in Houston. “They want the fruit but they don’t want the vine.”


Council members also blasted the online companies for jumping into the market without approval after months of discussions. The companies’ hasty action complicated the council discussion, said Christopher Newport, chief of staff for the city’s regulatory affairs department.

“There is an implication you are having a conversation under duress,” he said.

Uber and Lyft faced similar concerns when they started service in Seattle, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

The online companies’ ultimate effect on Houston taxi service is difficult to predict, Newport said. Data from other cities doesn’t point to an obvious outcome in Houston.

Taxi companies complained about the potential loss of business before Houston revised its cab laws to cover jitney service that circulates in high-traffic areas. When the city eventually allowed jitneys in certain circumstances, though, their entrance didn’t significantly harm taxi companies.

The shorter story has a bit more information. I am not surprised that the claim-jumping entries by Lyft and UberX caused some fuss on Council, but in the end I don’t think it will matter. I refer you back to the demand study on taxi service in Houston, which points pretty clearly to Council taking action of some kind to open the market. The Chron sure wants it to happen. I think it will, and I think the market for paid rides is not zero sum; I think it will expand to accommodate the newcomers, though I’m sure there will be some pain for the legacy cab companies. In the end, I believe we will be better off.

Firefighters union sues city to block cutbacks

Not sure about this.

Houston firefighters went to court Tuesday in an effort to block the city from removing personnel, trucks and ambulances from service. But a judge rejected their argument that the “rolling brownouts” plan violates the union’s collective bargaining agreement with the city.

State District Judge Elaine Palmer turned down the request for a temporary restraining order and ordered a follow-up hearing for March 7 to weigh the merits of a permanent injunction.

Fire union president Bryan Sky-Eagle said he filed the order “as a pre-emptive strike” to protect people and firefighters from the consequences of idling even more units. He argued that the purpose of the collective bargaining agreement is safety and that removing units from service undermines that.

“Once you start unilaterally making those changes, whatever the motivation may be – budgetary or political or otherwise – you start losing the intent,” Sky-Eagle said before the hearing.

City Attorney David Feldman argued at the hearing that what units are placed in service at what times is a management decision that is the city’s right to make. “The fact is, the union can’t run the fire department. The city’s got to run the fire department,” Feldman said before the hearing. “I disagree with them, obviously, as to whether there is a contractual right to have a certain number of units in service. It’s a management right, because you’ve got to deal with the resources available.”

See here for the background. I’m no lawyer, but I don’t see how this belongs in a courtroom. It’s a pretty standard budget dispute, at least as I see it. Mayor Parker said in a press release that the same kind of cutbacks were made in 2010 during the budget crunch without any objections from the union. The lack of an TRO suggests to me that the city will prevail here, but we’ll see. Texpatriate has more.

Texas blog roundup for the week of February 24

The Texas Progressive Alliance thinks Ted Nugent is an appropriate spokesman for the modern Republican Party of Texas as it brings you this week’s roundup.


Endorsement watch: Hey, there’s still a little bit of early voting left

From the “You just can’t rush these things” department, the Chron endorses James Cargas in the Democratic primary rematch in CD07.

James Cargas

James Cargas

Whomever wins in the Democratic primary for U.S. House 7th District will face an uphill battle in a Republican-friendly district to defeat Rep. John Culberson. But voters can also look at this race as something more than preparation for November. The choice in this primary reflects a decision that Texas Democrats will have to make if they ever find electoral success: the tempered insider or the strident activist. It is a choice that Republicans have had to grapple with for some time. Sometimes it is a division over policy, sometimes over strategy, but it rarely leaves everyone satisfied.

So, in this race we provide the same advice for Democrats that we give Republicans: Go for the candidate who talks about Houston issues and not just in cable news quotes. That candidate is James Cargas.

His career in oil and gas has sent Cargas, 47, from the Clinton White House to City Hall and the energy corridor. That’s experience tailor-made to represent the district, which stretches west from Bellaire and the Galleria area, following Interstate 10 as its northern barrier before turning north to follow Highway 6. It is a district filled with energy company high-rises, and they need a representative who understands the nuances of the industry.

Cargas peppers his speeches with quotes from George Mitchell about reasonable regulation and focuses his regulatory eye on irresponsible operators who give the industry a bad reputation. It is the sort of voice that Houston needs in D.C.

Not sure why it took them until ten days into early voting to get around to this one. I mean, the Chron endorsed Cargas in the 2012 primary runoff, and other than a few potshots at Lissa Squiers what they said then isn’t all that different from what they’re saying this time. The runoff in 2012 was nasty and personal even by Democratic primary standards, but the rematch has been fairly subdued, perhaps because of that. I don’t think the winner will have much better luck against Culberson this year than in 2012, but there you have it anyway.